It’s reasonable to look at the US Capitol, where the newly Republican-controlled House of Representatives has adjourned without managing to elect a speaker and to think new year, same old problem.
Same old problem with American democracy, that is.
But this is not a problem with American democracy so much as a Republican Party that believes in ideological purity of an indeterminate and illiberal complexion, at the expense of elections and governance.
Whatever happens and whenever it happens, as Tom Nichols writes in The Atlantic: “A significant part of the Republican Party, and especially its base, now lives in a post-policy world. Governing is nothing. The show is everything.”
So to the nomination for the speakership of Byron Donalds, a 44-year old Republican first elected to the House in 2020. Mr Donalds is black and he was probably nominated to serve as a foil to Hakeem Jeffries, leader of the Democratic caucus. In fact, the Republican representative who nominated Mr Donalds even made a speech with pro forma quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. about the wondrousness of two young Black men vying for the speakership.
Clearly the Republicans were executing a form of political Kabuki to humiliate Kevin McCarthy, a man correctly described as a dull creature of the Beltway who tried to pander his way to power. Mr McCarthy, for instance, once even sorted Donald Trump’s favourite Starburst candies so that the former president wouldn’t run into any yellow and orange ones.
That he couldn’t pander his way to speakership in the first heady days of the 118th Republican-controlled House is a sign of how far the Republican Party has come from its long period of iron self-control in the last century. Then, it dominated the White House and Congress, while the Democrats fumbled around, distraught about perceived ideological impurity within their ranks. As Bill Clinton once said: “Democrats want to fall in love; Republicans just fall in line.”
Now, the Republicans neither want to fall in line, nor to govern. They are making clear they see the role of elected representatives as chaos-makers rather than people who care about debt ceilings, abortion, Ukraine, and everything else that might affect the life of ordinary Americans.
As Peter Spiegel writes in The Financial Times, “the Republican party has been unmooring itself from its ‘party of government’ roots for more than a decade, ever since its Tea Party faction began demonising the kinds of political compromises that make governing possible. McCarthy is not the first Republican leader to be felled by the party’s fundamentalist wing, after all.”
Donald Trump symbolised this new, undisciplined, unhinged Republican Party’s disconnection from the basics of governance. This is not about democracy but an older malaise.